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The Search for Scientific Proof for Premonitions

When it finally happened, shortly after nine o’clock in the morning on October
21, 1966—when the teetering pile of mining waste known as a coal tip collapsed
after days of heavy rain and an avalanche of black industrial sludge swept down
the Welsh mountainside into the village of
Aberfan,
when rocks and mining equipment
from the colliery slammed into people’s homes and the schools were buried and
116 young children were asphyxiated by this slurry dark as the river Styx—the
anguished public response was that someone should have seen this disaster
coming, ought to have predicted it.
 

Someone did. 

The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold

by Sam Knight

Penguin Press, 256pp., $28

Or at least, they claimed they had. Shortly after the tragedy at
Aberfan, several women and men recalled having eerily specific premonitions of
the event. A piano teacher named Kathleen Middleton awoke in North London, only
hours before the tip fell, with a feeling of sheer dread, “choking and gasping
and with the sense of the walls caving in.” A woman in Plymouth had a vision
the evening before the disaster in which a small, frightened boy watched an
“avalanche of coal” slide towards him but was rescued; she later recognized the
child’s face on a television news segment about Aberfan. One of the children
who died had first dreamt of “something black” smothering her school. Paul
Davies, an 8-year-old victim, drew a picture the night before the catastrophe
that showed many people digging in a hillside. Above the scene, he had written
two words: The End.

Premonitions this dramatic and alarming are likely rare. But most of us
have experienced odd coincidences that make us feel, even for an instant, that
we have glimpsed the future. A phrase or scene that triggers a jarring
sensation of déjà vu. Thinking of someone right before they text or call. Inexplicably
dreaming about a long-lost acquaintance or relative only to wake and find that
they have fallen ill or died. It’s mostly accepted that these are not really
forms of precognition or time travel but instead fluky accidents or momentary brain glitches, explainable by science. And so we don’t give
them a second thought or take them that seriously. But what if we did?

The
Premonitions Bureau
, an
adroit debut from The New Yorker staff writer Sam Knight, draws us into a world not that far gone in
which psychic phenomena were yet untamed by science and uncanny sensations
still whispered of the supernatural, of cosmic secrets. Knight’s book registers
the spectral shockwaves that rippled out from Aberfan through the human
instrument of John Barker, a British psychiatrist who began cataloguing and
investigating the country’s premonitions and portents in the wake of the
accident. Barker spent his career seeking out the hidden joints between
paranormal experience and modern medicine, asking scientific questions about the
occult that we have now agreed no longer to ask. In Knight’s skillful hands,
the life of this forgotten clinician becomes a meditation on time and a window
through which we can perceive the long human history of fate and foresight.
It’s also a tale about how we decide what is worthy of science and what it
feels like to be left behind. It is a story about a scientific revolution that
never happened. 


Forty-two years old when the country learned of Aberfan, John Barker was
a Cambridge-educated psychiatrist of terrific ambition and rather middling
achievement. In his thirties, he had been an unusually young hospital
superintendent at a facility in Dorset; a nervous breakdown led to his demotion
and reassignment, by the mid-’60s, to Shelton Hospital, where he cared for
about 200 of the facility’s thousand patients. Shelton was a Victorian-era
asylum in western England, not far from Wales, and a hellish world unto itself.
Local doctors called it the “dumping ground,” this 15-acre gothic facility of red-brick
buildings hidden behind red-brick walls, where women and men suffering from
mental illness were deposited for the rest of their lives. One-third of
Shelton’s population had never received a single visitor. Like other mental
health facilities in midcentury Britain, it was a place of absolutely crushing neglect.
“Nurses smoked constantly,” Knight writes, “in part to block out Shelton’s
all-pervading smell: of a house, locked up for years, in which stray animals
had occasionally come to piss.” Every week or two, another suicide. “The
primary means of discharge was death.”

As a clinician, Barker was tough and demanding. He was also complicated
(like all of us) and tough to caricature. Barker had arrived at Shelton as
calls for psychiatric reform were growing louder, and he supported efforts to
make conditions “as pleasant as possible” for the hospital’s permanent
residents, including removing locks from most of the wards and arranging jazz
concerts. But he also favored aversion shock therapies and once performed a
lobotomy—which, to his credit, he later regretted. At any rate, Barker’s true passion
lay elsewhere. As a young medical student, he collected ghost stories from
nurses and staff at the London hospital where he was training: sudden and unaccountable
cold presences late at night, spectral ward sisters who shouldn’t have been
there and who vanished when you looked twice. A “modern doctor” committed to
rational methods, his interest in all things paranormal led him to join
Britain’s Society for Psychical Research, whose members had been studying unexplained
occult phenomena since 1882. Barker had a crystal ball on his desk and spent his
weekends at Shelton rambling around haunted houses with his son. He was a man
caught between worlds who would eventually fall through the cracks. 

The day following the disaster, Barker showed up in Aberfan to interview
residents for an ongoing project about people who frightened themselves to
death. But he realized quickly that his questioning was insensitive—and as
he learned more about the uncanny portents and premonitions that were already
swirling around the tragedy, he sensed a much greater opportunity. Barker
contacted Peter Fairley, a journalist and science editor at the
Evening
Standard
, with his hunch that some people may have foreseen the disaster
through a kind of second sight. Days later, the paper broadcast Barker’s
paranormal appeal to its 600,000 subscribers: “Did anyone have a genuine
premonition before the coal tip fell on Aberfan? That is what a senior British
psychiatrist would like to know.”


Seventy-six people wrote to Barker claiming premonitory visions of the
Aberfan disaster. Throughout 1967, another 469 psychic warnings were submitted
to the Bureau. Many of these submissions came from women and men who claimed to
be seers, who experienced precognition throughout their lives as a sort of
sixth sense. Kathleen Middleton, the piano teacher who awoke choking before the
coal tip collapse, became a regular Bureau contact who had been sensitive to
occult forces since she was a girl. (During the Blitz, a vision of disaster
convinced her to stay home one night instead of going out with friends; the
dance hall was bombed.) Another frequent contributor was Alan Hencher, a
telephone operator who wrote that he was “able to foretell certain events” but
with “no idea how or why.”
 

The premonitions gathered by Barker ran the gamut of believability. Some
were instantly disqualified. Others were spookily prescient. In early November
1967, both Hencher and Middleton warned of a train derailment; one occurred
days later, near London, killing 49 people. Hencher suffered a severe headache
on the evening of the disaster and suggested the time of the accident nearly to
the minute, before the news had been reported. Most of the premonitions appear
to have been vague enough to be right if you wanted them to be, if you were
willing to cock your head to one side and squint. A woman reported a dream
about a fire; on the day she mailed her letter, a department store in Brussels
burned. One day in May 1967, Middleton warned about an impending maritime
disaster; an oil tanker ran aground. Visions of airliner crashes
inevitably, if one waited long enough, came true somewhere in the world. Barker
was determined to believe in them. “Somehow,” he told an interviewer, seers
like Hencher and Middleton “can gate-crash the time barrier … see the unleashed
wheels of disaster before the rest of us.… They are absolutely genuine.
Quite honestly, it staggers me.”

For those of us unable to gate-crash time itself, one wonders what it
would be like to have this kind of premonitory sense, to perceive the future so
viscerally and so involuntarily. It was like knowing the answer for a test, some
explained, with cryptic keywords floating in space in their imaginations. ABERFAN.
TRAIN. Others had physiological symptoms. Odd smells, like earth or
rotting matter, that nobody else could perceive, or a spasm of tremors and pain
at the precise moment when disaster struck far away. People who sensed
premonitions explained to Barker that it was an awful burden, that they
grappled with, as one put it, “the torment of knowing” and “the problem of
deciding whether we should tell what we have received” in the face of potential
ridicule or error. 

Prone to a certain grandeur, Barker believed that the stakes of the project,
which he called “essential material and perhaps the largest study on
precognition in existence,” were high. Practically speaking, he thought it
would help avert disaster. (If the Premonitions Bureau had been up and running
earlier, he boldly claimed, Aberfan could have been avoided and many children’s
lives saved.) More daringly, Barker thought that proving the existence of
precognition would overturn the basic human understanding of linear time. He
wondered if some people were capable of registering “some sort of telepathic
‘shock wave’ induced by a disaster” before it occurred. It might be akin to the
psychic bonds felt between twins, but able to vanquish time as well as space. Inspired
by Foreknowledge, a book by retired shipping agent and
amateur psychic researcher Herbert Saltmarsh, Barker thought that our conscious
minds could likely only experience time moving forward, and in three distinct
categories: past, present, and future. To our unconscious, however, time might
be less stable and more permeable. If scientists would “accept the evidence for
precognition from the cases” gathered by the Bureau, he said, they would be
“driven to the conclusion that the future does exist here and now—at
the present moment.” Barker sensed a career-defining discovery just around the
corner. 

But it was not to be. John Barker died on August 20, 1968 after a sudden
brain aneurysm. He was 44 years old. The Bureau, which Jennifer Preston
dutifully continued through the 1970s, and which ultimately included more than
3,000 premonitions, represented the last, unfinished chapter of his brief life.
He never wrote his book on precognition and fell into obscurity. The morning
before he died, Kathleen Middleton woke up choking. 


Knight narrates Barker’s story with considerable generosity and evident
care. Rather than condescend or deride him as a crank, Knight thinks with
Barker: about the strangeness of time and our human ways of moving through it,
about how we make meaning from chaos and resist the truly random, about
prediction and cognition and our hunger for prophecy. Yet the many
disappointments in Barker’s career were not incidental to his significance, and
emphasizing them does not diminish him. In fact, his life can also be framed as
a tale told much too rarely in the history of science, about how scientific inquiry
relies as much upon failure as success in order to function, on exclusion as
much as expansion.

Around the time Barker was appointed to his role at Shelton, the
American historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn published a book called The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions,
a landmark work that now structures
practically everyone’s thinking without them realizing it. What Kuhn proposed
was that scientific research always occurs within a paradigm: a set of rules
and assumptions that reflect not only what we think we know about how the
universe works, but also the questions we are permitted to ask about it. At any
given moment, “normal science” beavers away within the borders of the current paradigm,
working on “legitimate problems” and solving puzzles. For a long while, Kuhn explained,
phenomena “that will not fit the box are … not seen at all,” and “fundamental
novelties” are suppressed. Eventually, however, there are too many anomalies
for which the reigning paradigm cannot account. When a critical mass is
reached, the model breaks and a new one is adopted that can better explain things.
This is a scientific revolution.

For Barker, precognition constituted what Kuhn would have called a
legitimate problem within normal science: It ought to be studied using experimental
methods and would, he thought, one day be explained by them. But he admitted
the risk that modern psychiatry might not ever be able to accommodate the
occult, that his work on premonitions could break the paradigm altogether. Hunches
and visions that came true might demand a new way of explaining time and
energy. “Existing scientific theories must be transformed or disregarded if
they cannot explain all the facts,” he lectured his many critics. “Although unpalatable
to many, this attitude is clearly essential to all scientific progress.” He
seems to have seen himself as a contemporary Galileo, insisting upon empirical truth
in the face of “frivolous and irresponsible” gatekeepers. “What is now
unfamiliar,” he argued in the BMJ, usually tends to be “not accepted,
even despite overwhelming supportive evidence. Thus for generations the earth
was traditionally regarded as flat, and those who opposed this notion were
bitterly attacked.” Barker wanted the ruling scientific paradigm to make room
for the paranormal—or give way.

It wasn’t so implausible, in midcentury Britain, that it just might. A
craze for spiritualism and the paranormal had swept the country
between the two world wars, and a rash of new technologies that seemed magical
(telegram, radio, television, etc.) left many Britons, not unreasonably, to
wonder if “supernatural” phenomena like prophecies or telepathy might turn out
to be explainable after all. In Barker’s Britain, one quarter of the
population had reported believing in some form of the occult. Even Sigmund
Freud, nervously protecting the reputation of psychoanalysis, refused to
dismiss paranormal activities “in advance” as being “unscientific, or unworthy,
or harmful.” In physics, too, Knight points out, “the old order of time was
collapsing” by midcentury, thanks to developments in relativity as well as
quantum mechanics. For experts, time had become less predictable and mechanisms
of causation less clear, both subatomically and cosmically. Barker had been
formed, in other words, by “a society in which one set of certainties had yet
to be eclipsed by another.”

But instead of rearranging itself around Barker’s research into
precognition, the paradigm shifted away from him and snapped more firmly into
place. The walls sprang up, and the questions that interested Barker became
seen as illegitimate and unscientific. The Bureau he built with Fairley was not
all that successful. Only about 3 percent of submissions ever came true, and in
February 1968 a deadly fire at Shelton Hospital itself went unpredicted, to the
unabashed glee of critics and satirists. Barker’s supervisors grew skeptical
and then embarrassed. As time went on, and the boundaries of the scientific
paradigm in which we still live grew less permeable, occult phenomena were
explained not by bending time, but with recourse to cognitive science and
neurology. Premonitions became understood not in terms of extrasensory
perception but simply misperception: the work of cognitive error or misfiring
neurons rather than the supernatural. 

The popular understanding of scientific revolutions still revolves
around big ruptures and great scientists, the paradigm-defining concepts (like heliocentrism,
gravity, or relativity) that transform how human beings think they understand
the universe: We shift the frame to move forward. Yet there is just as much to
be learned from the times when revolutions don’t occur, when scientific inquiry
is defined not by asking thrilling new questions, but by the determination that
some old questions will no longer be asked. What’s so brilliant about Knight’s account,
in the end, is the way it portrays a creative workaday researcher rather than a
modern-day Newton or Einstein, a man aspiring to do normal science while the rules
shifted around him; the way it conveys the rarely captured feeling of a
paradigm closing in around you and your ideas, until it all fades to black.  

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